China's superfast train: On board Modi's dream project
The Chinese have left us far behind and the Indian railways has been left with a lot of catching up to do.
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With Prime Minister Modi in Xian, the hometown of the Chinese President, Xi Jinping, all eyes are on the major outcomes from this visit. Railways is expected to be the most important driver of this visit. The two countries are expected to sign a major memorandum on expanding cooperation in the building of a high-speed rail corridor between Delhi and Chennai.
For the People's Republic of China, building the world's largest superfast rail network has been closely linked to the country's booming global ambition. In the early 1990s the average passenger train in China ran at a speed of only 48kmph. Roads were badly congested and people were forced to fly even for short journeys. It was in 1999 that China began building its first high-speed rail corridor. Within 15 years, China has already built a national network that is bigger than all the high-speed corridors of the world put together. At the time of independence, India's rail network was nearly 54,000km, while China's rail network was only 27,000km. But since then, China has nearly quadrupled its rail network to about 1,10,000km, while India has added barely 11,000km of track in the same period.
As far back as the late 19th century, the Indian railways was laying tracks in different parts of Africa and even surveying potential rail routes to China through Burma. But now the Chinese have left us far behind and the Indian railways has been left with a lot of catching up to do.
When PM Modi announced his quest for a high-speed rail corridor linking India's biggest cities, questions were asked about whether it's worth spending the kind of money that is required to fund this expensive dream. Even in China, a hot debate raged over whether or not it was worth investing huge sums of money on a project that could not be afforded by a majority of the people in the country. According to conservative estimates, the total cost of funding China's high-speed rail corridor has been upwards of a whopping $300 billion in the past decade and a half.
China's early high-speed trains were imported or built under technology transfer agreements with foreign train-makers like Alstom, Siemens, Bombardier and Kawasaki Heavy Industries. Chinese engineers then redesigned internal train components and built indigenous trains that can reach operational speeds of up to 380kmph. The average speed on these trains at present is 200kmph.
China currently has a 16,000km high-speed network across the country, but that is not restricting the scale of the country's ambition. The Chinese authorities are now planning to build a 7,000km-long high-speed railway line linking Beijing to Moscow. This railway line will cost US $250 billion and will pass through China, Kazakhstan and Russia. This track will be thrice the size of the world's current longest high-speed line.
In the build up to Prime Minister Modi's visit to Beijing, Chinese authorities have been pushing for a pilot project to show case the country's high-speed prowess to the Indian people. China is currently conducting a feasibility study for the $36 billion, 1,754km Delhi-Chennai high-speed corridor. China wants to speed up implementation of a shorter high-speed rail corridor from Chennai to Bangalore and from Delhi to Agra even while the feasibility study is going on.
Railway minister Suresh Prabhu has announced that the government is seeking US $137 billion worth of investments in the Indian railways over the next five years. Japan and France are the other countries bidding for a share of modernising India's rail system, which is the fourth largest in the world. Days ahead of Modi's visit, the Chinese ambassador to India has announced that deals worth US $10 billion are expected to be signed this week. A major part of this investment is likely to be in upgrading the Indian railways.
Twenty years ago, platforms across China were as overcrowded as Indian railway stations are today. But within two decades, China has been able to revolutionise the face of its railway network. In India, talk of modernisation has been on for a while. It remains to be seen how all that talk will translate into action.